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Longtime Sen. Jesse Helms Was Conservative Purist

Then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) speaks January 31, 2002, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Arlington, Va. Helms endorsed Elizabeth Dole to succeed him as he retired from the Senate in 2003.
Manny Ceneta
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Then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) speaks January 31, 2002, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Arlington, Va. Helms endorsed Elizabeth Dole to succeed him as he retired from the Senate in 2003.
North Carolina's Republican Senator-elect Jesse Helms (center) is surrounded by his family after his victory speech at Raleigh, N.C., in this Nov. 8, 1972, photo.
Manny Ceneta / Getty Images
Getty Images
North Carolina's Republican Senator-elect Jesse Helms (center) is surrounded by his family after his victory speech at Raleigh, N.C., in this Nov. 8, 1972, photo.

Jesse Helms, the five-term North Carolina senator who retired in 2003 but left a legacy of strong conservatism — and controversy — in a state that hadn't seen a GOP senator for decades, has died. He was 86 years old.

Shortly after he was elected to the Senate, newspapers in North Carolina gave him a nickname that stuck with him the rest of his political career. They called him "Senator No," for his habit of voting against government spending, against social programs and against foreign aid. The nickname was intended to be an insult, but Helms wore it as a badge of honor.

The Republican reveled in his obstructionist reputation, as his 1990 election-night victory speech illustrates: "Eighteen years ago, the people of North Carolina elected a United States senator who pledged to say no to the tax-and-spend liberals in Congress, even when it meant standing alone and saying no alone. And I make this covenant with you tonight: If the liberal politicians think I've been a thorn in their sides in the past, they haven't seen anything yet."

In his three decades in the Senate, Helms battled tirelessly for the conservative cause. He waged high-profile fights against the Panama Canal treaty, AIDS funding, abortion and affirmative action. He was willing to take on his fellow Republicans — criticizing Presidents Reagan and Bush for accepting tax increases in the 1980s and '90s.

But Helms was best known for his steadfast opinions on social issues. He lambasted Hollywood for sex and violence in movies, criticized artists whose work he considered obscene and berated groups he felt were destroying traditional families.

"Seldom a day passes by when there's not another lawmaker coming up with some new idea which would further destroy parental authority in our land," he said in a speech kicking off his 1990 re-election campaign. "Just think about it: homosexuals, lesbians, disgusting people marching in our streets demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other and the right to adopt children. How do you like them apples?"

From TV Commentator To Senator

Helms' conservative views grew out of his small-town upbringing in Monroe, N.C., where he said he learned the importance of personal responsibility. He began his professional career as a news reporter in the 1940s, and spent time as a Senate aide in the '50s. But his rise to prominence began in 1960, when he took a job as a nightly commentator on Raleigh's most popular television station.

For a dozen years, Helms used his TV forum to decry communism, attack the civil rights movement, and espouse conservative values. By 1972, he was a North Carolina television institution and decided to run for the Senate.

"I was talked into it at a time when no Republican could be elected to any statewide office in North Carolina — never had been, never would be. That was the acknowledged political fact," Helms said in a 1983 interview with NPR. "So I had the luxury of going around the state saying exactly what I believed, and the people apparently agreed with it."

Not only did many North Carolina voters agree with Helms, but he attracted the kind of passion from them that was rare for any politician. Conservatives adored him for his unyielding dedication to their cause, while North Carolinians of all political persuasions praised him for his efficient constituent service.

Winning Over 'Dixie-crats'

But perhaps the key to Helms' political success was his ability to cut across party lines and win votes from conservative Democrats — people who once were known as "Dixie-crats" and in North Carolina grew to be called "Jesse-crats."

"He was really a relic in a way," said Ernest Furgurson, who wrote a 1986 biography of Helms. "He used new techniques, mass-mail fundraising, television to beat on themes that had been successful for Dixiecrats and segregationists back into the previous century."

Indeed, Helms began his career in an era when race was the predominant factor in Southern politics, and Furgurson says the senator continued to campaign on racial issues even as many other Southern conservatives abandoned the technique.

In 1983, Helms led an unsuccessful fight against the federal Martin Luther King holiday, then used the issue the next year in campaign commercials. In several elections, he linked his opponents to Jesse Jackson and to other black leaders. And in 1990, when he ran against Harvey Gantt — an African-American — Helms broadcast this racially-tinged TV ad: "You needed that job and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is."

Gantt called Helms' tactics racially divisive and asked North Carolina voters to decide for themselves whether Helms was a racist. But as he had throughout his career, Helms bristled at the implication. Even though polls suggested Helms' racial quota ads were the key to his winning the 1990 election, the senator denied that he injected race into the campaign.

"Absolutely not. What am I supposed to do? Ignore everything that involves a black man? That would make me speechless in this campaign, and Mr. Gantt knows how to dish it out but he can't take it."

A Legacy Of Principles

Helms did mellow a bit toward the end of his Senate career. Slowed by health problems, he grew less feisty, and he surprised many of his critics when he teamed up with rock star Bono to fight AIDS in Africa.

When asked in the 1983 NPR interview about the political legacy he hoped to leave, Helms, in contrast to his fiery campaign rhetoric, was introspective and modest: "I would like to be remembered as a fella who did the best he could and didn't back down when he thought he was right. And if I've done anything ... made any contribution, and I don't say that I have ... it is that I have introduced into the dialog some things that may not have been introduced otherwise."

Helms did not seek re-election in 2002, and for the last two years of his life, he lived in a convalescent center after being diagnosed with a form of dementia. His family said he died peacefully Friday morning of natural causes. The White House paid tribute to him Friday as "a great public servant and true patriot."

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Adam Hochberg
Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Adam Hochberg reports on a broad range of issues in the Southeast. Since he joined NPR in 1995, Hochberg has traveled the region extensively, reporting on its changing economy, demographics, culture and politics. He also currently focuses on transportation. Hochberg covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, followed candidates in three Presidential elections and reported on more than a dozen hurricanes.